Data and the Issue of Gun Control

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I am continually surprised by the minimal role data plays in our discussions of guns, gun rights, and gun control. I see another example of this in the recent opinion piece in the Bates Student entitled “Gun Control is Essential.”

I think most of us believe that American society is becoming more violent, that the number of crimes committed each year with firearms is increasing and that we need to do something about it. However the crime reports published by the FBI show this perception is incorrect. The FBI’s webpage “Crime in the United States 2012,” shows, in Tables I and IA, that the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people has dropped every year from 747.1 in 1993 to 386.9 in 2012, or by 18.7% in the twenty year period. The “Expanded Homicide Data” in Table 8 shows that the total number of murders per hundred thousand people committed with a firearm (rifle, shotgun, handgun, and unspecified) has gone from 3.70 in 2008 to 2.82 in 2012.

One surprising piece of information in Table 8 is that the number of murders committed with “Personal Weapons” – examples of which are hands and feet – exceeded the number of murders committed with rifles and shotguns combined every year from 2008 to 2012

Lest I be accused of “cherry-picking” the data by choosing the years over which it is quoted, let me say that as far as I can tell, “Expanded Homicide Data” is only reported in five year intervals whereas violent crime is reported in twenty year intervals. In each case I’m looking at data from the last time-interval reported.

I was surprised by this data and my guess is that others will also find it surprising. After studying the FBI tables my first question was is the data accurate? FBI crime statistics are compiled from yearly reports submitted by essentially every law enforcement agency in the country, so the data should be accurate. My second question was why does the data surprise me? In other words, why did I think the number of violent crimes, and in particular, the number of murders committed with a firearm, was increasing? My guess is that the reporting of the news media is biased, perhaps intentionally, or perhaps because it – like the opinion piece in last week’s Bates Student – over-emphasizes the dramatic “lone gunman” crimes without putting them into a larger context.

The opinion piece also discussed the recent successful recall of the two state legislators in Colorado who spearheaded the passage of “anti-gun” legislation earlier this year. The author of the opinion piece calls them “political martyrs” and wonders if they were voted out of office because “only the gun fanatics came out to the polls.” But an internet search on the CNN and Huffington Post websites finds that although the NRA contributed between $400,000 and $500,000 to support the recall, Mayor Bloomberg and “billionaire philanthropist” Elie Broad contributed $350,000 and $250,000 respectively to defeat it. More generally, even though opponents of the recall procured nearly 3 million dollars (compared to the $540,000 raised by its proponents), the recall was successful. So if only “gun fanatics came out to the polls” it wasn’t because opponents of the recall lacked the money to support their position.

Understanding the recall election and what it represents is complicated by questions of how much money was raised that didn’t have to be reported, how many of the votes were against the specific legislators rather than their position on gun laws, etc. Nonetheless, the articles on the CNN and the Huffington Post websites lead us to believe that even though the NRA and other supporters of the recall were outspent by a margin of almost six to one, the recall was successful. The opinion piece asks “So what happened?” and I think that is an excellent question.

The legislation passed in Colorado, which is still in effect, includes three parts: first, it bans ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds, second, all dealers must perform a background check before selling any firearm, and third, private parties must perform the same background check as dealers on any firearm they sell (plugging the “gun show loophole”). Two parts of the Colorado legislation were put into law by the federal government in 1994, the Brady Handgun Prevention Act, better known as the Brady Bill, and the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. The former expired in 2004 and the latter in 2009. The Assault Weapons Ban outlawed certain specific firearms and made ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds illegal. The Brady Bill required dealers to perform background checks using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) on any person attempting to buy a firearm. Background checks were not required for sales between private citizens.

The data on the FBI website shows no noticeable change in the yearly decrease of violent crimes when the two laws went into effect and no noticeable change in the yearly decrease of violent crimes when they expired. This was one of the major reasons that neither law was renewed. Data on the effectiveness of requiring private parties to perform background checks is still not definitive. A study performed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (the BATF) in 2000 found that gun shows were a major source of illegal gun sales.

On the other hand, in 1997 the Bureau of Justice interviewed over 18,000 federal and state prisoners and found that only 0.8% said they had purchased a firearm at a gun show. More studies have been done, but each has been criticized and there are no clear conclusions.

Thus, of the three provisions in the Colorado legislation, two have been shown by the data on the FBI website to have no discernible effect on the number of violent crimes committed and the effectiveness of the third is still inconclusive. Consequently, contrary to what is stated in the opinion piece, there is no data to support the statement that the legislation passed in Colorado “will make our lives safer.”

Perhaps there is better data than what I’ve cited above, and indeed, finding and evaluating data that is reliable and unbiased can be difficult and time consuming. But I think, first, we need to search out all of the data we can find, even that which contradicts our beliefs, so our opinions (and opinion pieces) have a firm foundation, and second, we need to stay open to new data and allow our opinions to evolve accordingly.

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